David Neff Nails It!

I love this piece by David Neff:

The 150 evangelical leaders who met behind closed doors on January 14 to anoint a Republican candidate for President were wise not to have invited me.

I believe that Christians have an urgent duty to engage the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society. That requires a wide variety of political action. However, one thing it doesn’t call for is playing kingmaker and powerbroker.

By conspiring to throw their weight behind a single evangelical-friendly candidate, they fed the widespread perception that evangelicalism’s main identifying feature is right-wing political activism focused on abortion and homosexuality. In truth, it is hard to imagine the Religious Left in 2008 doing something similar: holding a conclave to decide whether they would throw their collective weight behind either Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, unwilling to leave the Democratic primary results to the voters….

When evangelicals are confined to a partisan kennel, it is easy to think we are exercising real power. In fact we are, to use the old Soviet phrase, serving as “useful idiots.” Christianity Today founder Billy Graham discovered this had happened to him. Out of an abundance of enthusiasm and good will, he tried to aid Richard Nixon in his campaign. Later, when Watergate transcripts revealed the true Nixon, Graham realized he had been used.

We are tempted to think we can be kingmakers and powerbrokers, that we can deliver or withhold the support of a voting bloc. But if there is any lesson in the story of this year’s primary elections, it is this: evangelicals have not voted as a bloc and many are not following their leaders. (Ironically, in December several news pieces described the lack of consensus on a candidate among Iowa evangelicals–and then referred to them as a voting “bloc.” How could they be a “bloc” if they couldn’t agree which they hated more: Mitt’s Mormonism or Newt’s infidelities?)

Rather than trying to demonstrate power through the promise or threat of votes, evangelicals should use influence. Influence is a matter of education and persuasion—informing and convincing constituents and lawmakers alike. In the past four decades, the number of evangelical advocacy groups operating in Washington, DC, has grown thirteenfold, from three to thirty-nine. These groups focus on a variety of issues, both domestic and international: human rights, global poverty, religious freedom, bioethics, family life, and immigration, among them. They advocate for legislation that will address these problems, but because they need everyone’s support, they have learned to work both sides of the aisle.

We should also exercise influence by focusing our talent on the institutions of influence—the universities, think tanks, and media outlets where elites shape culture. James Davison Hunter advocated this approach in his book, To Change the World. But he didn’t advocate it as a strategy for cultural change so much as an exercise in serving the common good.

In 2010, Hunter told Christianity Today, “Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.”




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  • DLS

    “When evangelicals are confined to a partisan kennel, it is easy to think we are exercising real power. In fact we are, to use the old Soviet phrase, serving as “useful idiots.”

    – I assume that he includes Jim Wallis and the folks at Sojourners in that group?

  • John W Frye

    With antics like this the church verges on a form of idolatry.

  • Luke Allison

    How does the madness ever end? The good news is that my generation seems to be suspicious of this type of thing. Suspicious enough to make this kind of Christianity obsolete in America? Hey, I’m becoming more idealistic every day, so why not??

  • David Dollins

    I don’t recall the Apostle Paul getting a group together to vote Nero out. 🙂 Paul’s motivation and concern? “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2

  • Amos Paul


    That verse doesn’t condemn homosexuals and assert the military power of America through policy enough. These evangelicals don’t want Bible verses, they want results!

  • Luke Allison

    “These evangelicals don’t want Bible verses, they want results!”

    Actually, I think they love the idea of Bible verses, but their particular hermeneutic has a very distinct focus. As David Bentley Hart has said: “…an extraordinary number of the devout (at least in certain classes) are not merely pious, but God-haunted, apocalyptic, chiliastic, vulgarly religiose, and always living in the end times.”

    If you believe the apocalypse is merely two or three policies away, you tend to care about who’s making the polices, right?

    Coming from a family who once traveled to Ft. Snelling’s national cemetery in order to get front-row-seats for the Rapture in ’88, I have some empathy for these guys. But not much.

  • James

    I agree with Neff, and agree with others who would point out this is a bipartisan problem. During the 2008 election, for example, the two candidates tried to both gain Christian and evangelical voters by grabbing as many “useful idiots” to their sides as they could. Both candidates tried to appear more devout than either appears to be in any non-election year, and a surprising number fell for the act.

  • Wow, it almost sounds like y’all want evangelicals to get together and pray and otherwise have no input into the running of the country. Christians are going to vote, so let’s do it wisely.

    To the point of the article, I heard a spokesman from the FRC put it this way: When evangelicals and social conservatives split their votes between 2 or 3 candidates, they end up with the one candidate they didn’t want, so they thought it best to try to get everyone to come together on one of the candidates they prefer.

    I can’t see anything wrong with that; in fact, it sounds like a good idea. It does not deify the state or deny the gospel. It’s simply exercising democracy with a little common sense thrown in.

    And I wonder if Neff would be complaining if it was Wallis’ group spearheading this.

  • Cal

    What hath Washington to do with Jerusalem?


    For Lo, His Kingdom is not of this world!

  • Cal


    Perhaps Paul and Peter ought to have to formed a committee to remove Nero before he beheaded one and crucified the other. Foolish Apostles!

  • Amos Paul

    @8 ChrisB

    It’s about not attempting to use *church authority* to endorse specific candidates and political parties–which are inherently secular things. The church universal has always become the weakest and least Christ-like when its attempted to grasp state power.

    When talking *as* church leaders, pastors and so forth should really only be focusing on *the issues*–and letting the people figure out what they think the best way(s) of supporting those issues are when they go to the polls to vote. Voting is a thing that expects personal responsibility and decision making. We shouldn’t even be encouraging sheep-like loyalty to the political endorsements of pastors or the party.

    Of course, conservative libertarian that I am, I definitely think the whole neo-con Evangelical cronyism is disgusting in how the church explicitly supports so many un-Christ’like things. Neither major party in America supports Christ, IMO. And I don’t think we should taint ourselves with them.

    Get to Washington and state governments, if you like. Campaign for the issues you believe in. And, if you feel so led, endorse a candidate *as an individual*–but not as a church leader. Being a leader within the church carries the responsibility of making Christ and his Kingdom your primary focus. For, as they say, our struggle is not merely against flesh and blood. Church leaders should be incredibly careful with the ways they entangle themselves within politics.

  • One thing learned from World War 2: Co-belligerents are not necessarily allies. The United States and Russia both fought the Germans, but each had their own agenda as well. Christians need to understand that we are indeed used as “useful idiots” by both parties time and again. The Republican Party is not our friend, no matter which issues they support. Neither is the Democratic Party. Supporting a party has been seen as a useful necessity (a pragmatic law to some), but I think Christians would be better served by punting any party support and supporting individuals and their stances…even if it means we don’t seem to wield as much power.

    Now let the “…boy Mike, are you never naive” chorus begin.

  • Sorry….”ever” naive.

  • DRT

    A wonderful example how the base moral motivations of conservatives value in-group behavior compared with the left view. The democrats will never do that because they feel it is wrong to band together just because you all are together. The conservatives feel that you should band together.


    Conservatives love in-group behavior, it shows that you are conservative! Of course they would do that.

    The Dems will never do that because they are actually against in-group behavior. I am certain that conservatives will blow off my last comment because they cannot understand a world without it. But I speak the truth. Many (most?) dems would go against the mainstream just because it is the mainstream.

  • Well said, David Neff. A couple minor quibbles though:

    (1) Do conservative evangelicals really despise Romney’s Mormonism? or simply his moderate policies? As far as I can tell, evangelicals aren’t raising a stink about, e.g., Glen Beck’s Mormonism.

    (2) Is the best alternative to becoming a voting block really becoming a D.C. advocacy group? And should our efforts at influence be directed at “the universities, think tanks, and media outlets where elites shape culture”? Or shouldn’t we focus on (in the words of John Howard Yoder) letting the “church be the church”?

  • I believe that Christians have an urgent duty to engage the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society. I agree wholeheartedly with this, although I’m surprised Neff didn’t mention ethical threats in that sentence. Business as usual – in DC or NYC or Chicago or LA or small town USA – needs better ethical grounding to be socially responsible to the citizens they employ & the communities in which they conduct business.

    I don’t think the church has the record which reflects Christ. There seem to be those clergy lured by donors/donations and wider audiences money enables. I wondered if the Kevin who wrote this like-minded (to Neff’s point) blog post in the NY Times, today, is related to the Michael who chimes in, here? http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/for-god-so-loved-the-1-percent/ Kruse made the point that “under God” and the 1% share some historical expediency.

  • [I should have edited, better.] Last paragraph, 1st sentence should be: “I don’t think the church’s record reflects Christ well, some of the time.”

  • DLS, do you get tired of banging that drum? I’ve been distracted w/ other things recently, but every time I’m catching up on JC blog posts, your comments seemingly repeat themselves.

    Have you considered spending some time reading the concerns and issues Sojourners writers explore? Many of them are reflective of the voices we hear through Scripture’s pages.

  • Tim

    I respect Sojourners. Anti-stupid-wars under Bush. Ditto under Obama.

    Power does need to be exercised: kenotic, suffering, servant, weak (yet strong) power of agape, willingness to lose for the sake of a greater witness

    Lots of mimetic rivalry, let the reader understand, require wise, nonrivalrous uses of power- service without domination

    We have rivals who become the mirror of what they fight, enemy twins.

    Dig it!

  • DLS

    @18. No, I don’t. If so many people didn’t ignore that reality and/or rationalize it, it wouldn’t be so germane.

  • As it says in the “middle” of the bible:
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in humans.
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in princes
    Psalm 118:8-9

  • DLS – “that reality” – by which I guess you’re asserting your subjective reality and POV that Sojourners is politically partisan and trying to exercise political power, without exception among any of its staff or writers, or any of their work. Is that what you’re saying? If so, you lack substantiation, supportive evidence, & a corollary to the Jan 14th meeting, to begin with.

    It takes a simplistic vision to imagine a singular reason behind all of any group’s activities – whatever religion, politics or persuasion. The only extreme singularly-minded folks I’ve encountered are conspiracy-oriented, fanatical, authoritarian (employ or only perceive exclusively lord-over-others power), and cast everyone else in the same image. We simply cannot find grand conspiracies among people who serve others & permit one another to differ.

    Thus, ISTM these questions are warranted: Are you contending
    1) that the kingdom of God can & should be furthered by use of worldly weapons of power, that Christians should sanction (or anoint) worldly powers for purportedly “Christian” ends in such meetings as that on Jan 14th?
    &/or 2) that no one at Sojourners follows Christ because they’re using Christianity to disguise political ambitions to worldly power? (Which would imply: they’re cast in the same image as those who met on Jan 14th, and just aspire to lord over things according to their own gods?)

  • phil_style

    Can someone explain what it means that they “anoint a Republican candidate for President”

    What if he/she does not get elected? Does that mean God did not agree with the anointing?
    If you vote against the “anointed” one, are you sinning?
    What if some other evangelical leaders anoint a different guy? Which is the “most” anointed?

  • Joshua

    Chris B.

    Wallis’ group wouldn’t be spearheading this. The end.

    It’s best not to assume someone supports Jim Wallis because they abandon the remnants of a Christendom complex.

    Even if it was appropriate to use religious influence to garner votes for a particular candidate (and I don’t admit that for one second), nothing is common sensical about endorsing Santorum – that’s boarding a sinking ship. At least, up to this point, it would appear God doesn’t want Santorum in office any more than most Americans – including Evangelicals.

  • Jason Lee

    “focusing our talent on the institutions of influence—the universities, think tanks, and media outlets where elites shape culture.”

    Yes, yes … but do evangelicals have any sense of what that takes? Evangelicals are basically absent in these centers of cultural production and show no signs of taking the steps needed to get there. Plus, I don’t get the sense that the Evangelicals’ quick-results culture has any stomach for the fact that progress on this front would be a multi-generation process. I see every indication that the culture inside Evangelicalism (e.g., anti-intellecualism and one-dimensional focus on otherworldliness ) flat out works against Evangelicals becoming present in America’s institutional centers.

    On the bright side, I think Catholics aren’t as clueless as Evangelicals and are doing better on these fronts, so that’s encouraging.

  • A bit off topic, but I saw that the government Affairs director for AFA, Brian Fisher, one of the organizers of the event, has been touting his theory that HIV is unrelated to AIDs on their radio show. Exactly the type of people I want to represent Evangelicals politically.


  • DLS

    I disagree, Ann. The point of the article was that Christian ‘leaders’ should not get too aligned with any one particular party or political ideology. Under and rational metric or standard, Wallis and Sojourners are every bit as (or more) sold out for one end of the spectrum as any Christian Right leader is or has been. Frankly, I don’t even think most Wallis supporters would deny that, but apparently there are some.

    You (and others) may wish to give them a pass on that because you agree with them. But that’s my point, and exemplifies why the reminders are necessary. Were this a conservative leaning blog, I’d be more than happy to remind people of the Christian Right’s involvement in politics. But it’s most certainly not, and to prevent the echo chamber effect that too frequently occurs in the comments, someone has to point out truths, even if they’re sometimes uncomfortable.

  • phil_style

    @Adam shields; “his theory that HIV is unrelated to AIDs on their radio show”

    Really? Oh my word. I had to read your comment about three times just to make sure I was reading it correctly…

  • @Phil_Style, yeah. I haven’t listened to the show, but I have read a couple of excerpts and some interviews of him talking about it. He basically says that AIDS is a result of bad immune systems that are produced because of drug use or homosexual behavior and if people stopped being drug users or homosexuals we would not have AIDS. And this is the AFA’s official government representative.

  • Richard

    @ 28

    Yes, it was quite partisan of Wallis to work with George W Bush in establishing the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

  • DLS

    Yeah, I’m not sure that disproves what I wrote. Under that definition, Bush isn’t partisan either. And any right winger who even worked with a liberal isn’t partisan.